Thursday, 21 July 2011



First days are always awkward, the first day in a new class, a new school, a new job, usually means promotion from a previous point at which you had reached the peak only to be dumped at the bottom of the ladder again.

The first days at medical school were amazing, three hundred and more of us, the products of proud (or pestering) parents and families and the dedication of teachers, the doctors to be.

Arriving at the gates of the college, dressed in uniforms, grey skirts and trousers, crisp white shirts, and the navy blazers.
Full of dreams; saving the world, curing cancer, becoming rich and famous.

Entering rather shyly at first, and seeking security within little clusters of school friends, of city mates.

I remember the preparatory visit to the specialist stores, to be fitted for the white coats, buttons down the midline and knee length to distinguish us from the dentists, two coats at least, one lightweight white cotton with a hint of blue, several pockets for all our pens, notebooks, and treasured reminder booklets, a coat for the clean jobs, the premedical laboratories, the wards, the clinics, the patients.

The second was of heavier thick cotton, and ultimately used in one department only that of anatomy.

The names are called, and alphabetically we stand in line, divided into groups and subgroups that will attend lectures together, carry out laboratory experiments together, visit the wards together, and sit exams together for the next six years, this was where I met a dear friend whose name came immediately before mine for the first time.

Finding our way to the lockers, in their dusty corner in the old basic sciences block, claiming an empty one, sweetly asking the boys to carry it to where my friends had theirs, K picking the old lock! Claiming it and filling it with the bits and bobs we needed, the books, lecture notes, white coats, and dissection instruments, and then decorating the door with my own silly poster.

Wandering over across the courtyard, staring with envy at the groups of second year students discussing their skeleton bones earnestly, and the senior students as they descended from the hospital wards discussing the “patients” looking down their noses at us newcomers.

Between the two stone heads, under the bronze plaques with names of previous distinguished students and then to the right into the old Al-Kindi lecture halls, circles of graduated seats, central stairs, and the blackboards in the middle.

Finding a seat, speaking to those sitting nearby, and starting six years of friendships that shaped our lives.

Basic sciences, organic chemistry with Dr Frankol and his yellowed lecture notes, Medical physics, Physiology, Dr Hayawi in Embryology and Dr Hani who spoke too fast and scared us witless in Anatomy as he threatened us with dead patients as a result of sloppy surgery carried out by anatomically ignorant future surgeons.

The basic science laboratories, the pipettes, the scales, the chemicals, the monitors, the white rabbits and the frogs (and K catching and pithing them for me).
(To K a silent thank you again, I wonder did you ever make it to the Gulf)

And then the anatomy session.

The separate building, cool and dark, with the formaldehyde basins outside the long hall, the lecturers’ offices along one side with the buckets, jars and pots containing all manner of body parts.

The guard with his Erb’s palsy.

The two separate ends of the room; at one end the single cadaver set aside for the dental students, very well preserved and very neatly dissected.

The remainder of the eight silver tables ours, each occupied by one donor’s body, a cadaver that would slowly over a period of one academic year reveal the secrets of the human body, alternating sessions with the second year students working on the head and neck, while we figured out the limbs.

The first day in anatomy, the overpowering smell, the initial anxiety rapidly dissolving in our enthusiasm to see and learn, the initial repulsion overcome by the sheer numbers of students jostling for space close enough to the table to see, to feel, to cut.
The immediate assumption of control by the few amongst us who would become the expert dissectors, the demonstrators, the virtual surgeons (although thinking about it now of the three masters in our group one became a histopathologist, one an oncologist and the third a psychiatrist).

After the initial schoolboy pranks of placing a piece of dissected anatomy into the pocket of an unsuspecting girl’s white coat it was in the silent concentration of the anatomy hall where we all grew, where we became aware of the enormity of the challenge, the vastness of the role, and the smallness of our individual selves in the face of the complexities of the human body.

Coming out of the hall, with the fronts of our white coats no longer white, all the washing in the world could not remove the stench of formaldehyde from our hands and inside our noses, the initial nausea putting us off our meals for that day.

The mixed emotions at the end of the day, the magnificence of what we had seen, the extent of what we had to learn, and the elation having taken the first steps on the long path we had chosen.

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